Sir Peter Hall once again returns to one of his favourite playwrights, George Bernard Shaw, whom he has championed for many years (and in doing so given us some superb productions of his plays). Of course we have also seen another Shaw recently, the startlingly relevant Saint Joan in a wonderful production by Marianne Elliott at the National Theatre. Here at the Theatre Royal in Bath, Sir Peter comes up trumps and delivers a meticulously directed dose of witty and intelligent theatre, with some wonderful acting to boot.
Most people know the Pygmalion story through the delightful 1956 Lerner and Lowe musical and subsequent film entitled My Fair Lady. However Shaw’s original Pygmalion is a much less rosy and romantic tale than the musical, with a sad ending unthinkable for a Broadway show of the time. Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that he can’t turn a cockney flower-girl they meet in Covent Garden, into ‘a lady’ and pass her off in polite society as such. This simple premise, inspired by Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion wishing an ivory sculpture of a perfect woman he had created would come to life, is told in five acts, focusing on the consequences of Eliza Doolittle’s transformation and ultimate flowering into an independent woman. The play’s comedy, lightness of touch even, actually sits very well with Shaw’s more serious exploration of social class and identity. His jokes at the expense of the British class system are still very funny today, with class still a potent force in our modern society.
The production itself is marvellous. Sets by Simon Higlett are perfect, opening underneath the grand columns of St Paul’s Church Covent Garden (complete with a moving taxi cab) and taking us into Professor Higgins’s wood panelled ‘laboratory’ at his well appointed home on Wimpole Street. The direction gives the play a light edge, with the action buzzing along (the production last 140 minute, a relatively short Shaw). Acting is generally excellent, with Tim Pigott-Smith as a brilliantly petulant and restless Higgins, sometimes reminiscent of a bored schoolboy unable to grasp the niceties of polite conversation. Eliza is played charmingly by Michelle Dockery, who I really felt for and heartily applauded her eventual independence (whilst noting that Eliza thinks rather scornfully of her old friends once her social position rises, and her independence is still ultimately reliant on a man, so she’s not quite a feminist icon). Barry Stanton as Colonel Pickering and Tony Haygarth as Alfred Doolittle (Eliza’s Father), give spirited performances, particularly the latter as an uproarious amoral dustman turned willing victim of middle class morals. The final meeting between Eliza and Higgins shows faults in both of them, with Higgins doggedly rejecting kindness and emotion if favour of what he sees as honesty, and Eliza equally set on her course of independence and no compromise. Naturally Eliza gains our sympathies, she is being by far the most reasonable and she has a right to live her life as she pleases. But you do have some sympathy with Higgins, especially in the last seconds of the play when he realises that he has lost Eliza (a romantic liaison is certainly not the intention if the play).
Social position (perhaps more importantly social obligations, or lack of them), aspiration, and some of the snobbery and thinking displayed in Pygmalion, are alive and well in 2007, just they hide themselves slightly better than in Edwardian England and are expressed differently. ‘This is an age of upstarts’, as Henry Higgins says.
I hope this production will be seen in London after its short summer season in Bath, it deserves a longer life. The main problem with the play is that I always keep expecting the characters to break out into song, but dare I say it, Pygmalion is much more interesting and satisfying piece than its musical counterpart, if not quite as fun.